Lewontin Reviews Gould

Everyone’s blogging about Stephen J. Gould’s Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Razib, John Lynch, Laelaps). I’m not. The book’s too long, and I’m too busy. But that doesn’t mean I can’t link to them, and to another review of Gould. The other is Richard Lewontin’s review of two Gould books: The Richness of Life: The Essential Stephen Jay Gould and Punctuated Equilibrium. The latter is a chapter in Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Yes, a chapter of a book was released as a book on its own.

Lewontin’s review of the two books isn’t really a review of the two books. It’s more of a eulogy or an obit for Gould written a couple of years to late. Of course, it’s published in the New York Review of Books, which, from what I can gather, doesn’t really publish book reviews. Anyway, it’s an interesting piece, but don’t look to it for information about the two books it’s allegedly reviewing.

That said, one passage really caught my eye:

Of the best known and most active of active public intellectuals, only two have resisted the impulse to invent and advertise theories of human nature, its evolution, and its manifestation in history and social institutions. One was Carl Sagan, who largely avoided grand theories of humanity and, with the modesty appropriate to an astronomer, stuck to explaining the universe. The other was Stephen Jay Gould.

So, how do you explain the reissue of The Mismeasure of Man? No matter which side of the bell curve you fall on, that was done to address theories of human nature, its evolution, and its manifestation in history and social institutions.

(Via Lynch.)


  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    January 30, 2008

    To be fair, there’s a difference between “addressing” a hypothesis about human nature (and showing how that hypothesis is flawed) and inventing and advertising such a hypothesis. It’s been a while since I read The Mismeasure of Man, but I recall more of the former than the latter.

    On the flipside, Sagan wasn’t immune to the temptation of advertising: Cosmos has a bit of the “triune brain” idea, and Pale Blue Dot dabbles in evolutionary psychology.

  2. #2 Jonathan Badger
    January 30, 2008

    I don’t think you can separate The Mismeasure of Man from the debate on sociobiology that Gould was involved in at the time. While the ostensible targets of the book were phrenologists, eugenicists, and the like, it was pretty clear that the Gould’s motivation in writing the book was to make the public sit up and say “Hey, this newfangled sociobiology stuff kind of sounds like these evil discredited theories of the past!”

    While I’m pretty dubious of most of the claims of human sociobiology and its newer incarnation as evolutionary psychology, it always seemed kind of a cheap tactic.

  3. #3 revere
    January 30, 2008

    I’m old enough and been around enough to have known both of them. I agree with the comment that Mismeasure is a critique of grand theories, not proposing one. Steve didn’t do that and Dick knew him exceptionally well.

  4. #4 Colugo
    January 30, 2008

    One of Gould’s contributions to evolution and human behavior is his notion that the mental equality between the races is a contingent fact of history – namely, that there simply has not been enough time for races to diverge mentally. This is one of the weakest antiracist arguments ever devised, and “race realists” love attacking it. I myself believe in the mental equality of races, and I think the ill-advised “contingent fact” argument has been a gift to those on the other side of Gould on the issue of race.

    Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins’ eulogy of Gould

    “He identified himself as a Marxist but, like Darwinism, it is never quite certain what that identification implies. … (B)y insisting on his adherence to a Marxist viewpoint, he took the opportunity offered to him by his immense fame and legitimacy as a public intellectual to make a broad public think again about the validity of a Marxist analysis.

    At the level of actual political struggles, his most important activities were in the fight against creationism and in the campaign to destroy the legitimacy of biological determinism including sociobiology and racism. …

    He was one of the authors of the original manifesto challenging the claim of sociobiology that there is an evolutionarily derived and hard-wired human nature that guarantees the perpetuation of war, racism, the inequality of the sexes, and entrepreneurial capitalism.”

    Richard Lewontin, in his review of Elliot Sober and DS Wilson’s Unto Others (NY Review of Books, 10/22/98, “Survival of the Nicest”) praised the book and cited the example of a self-sacrificing war chief in his review.

    More recently DS Wilson has teamed up with Gould and Lewontin’s old sociobiology nemesis EO Wilson in the revival of group selection theory.

    Gould had originally praised WD Hamilton’s inclusive fitness theory – the foundation of sociobiology – and the work of Trivers in his Natural History article ‘So Cleverly Kind an Animal,’ reprinted in Ever Since Darwin.

  5. #5 Sven DiMilo
    January 30, 2008

    #3: Steve didn’t propose grand theories???
    not of human origins, maybe…

  6. #6 Laelaps
    January 30, 2008

    I agree with Blake and Jon that Mismeasure was more of a critique than a proposal of “grand theories of humanity.” Perhaps Gould’s favoring as neoteny as a factor in human evolution is the closest thing to what’s being discussed here.

    Likewise, Sagan did write The Dragons of Eden, a book that fiddled around with various aspects of human evolution and evolutionary psychology. Either way I think Lewontin’s characterization is a bit off, but more about Sagan than Gould.

  7. #7 DGS
    January 30, 2008

    Sven DiMilo: #3: Steve didn’t propose grand theories???
    not of human origins, maybe…

    Exactly… It’s confusing to me that Lewontin uses SJG’s relative lack of involvement in human issues as being some sort of example of his humility. I’ve always considered punctuated equilibrium to be an extraordinary amount of hubris attached to a middling amount of explanation… same goes for most of his “serious” theorizing.

  8. #8 razib
    January 31, 2008

    s.j gould was a god! (P.B.U.H.) the gates if ijtihad are closed!

  9. #9 csrster
    January 31, 2008

    Colugo: I’m not sure I understand your argument about the “contingent fact” theory. Are you saying that equality is, in some sense, _logically_ necessary? I notice that you use the word “believe” in connection with the mental equality of races – do you mean “believe” as in a matter of faith?

  10. #10 Colugo
    January 31, 2008

    csrster: “Are you saying that equality is, in some sense, _logically_ necessary?”

    My view is that genetic potential for intelligence is driven by universal processes of intra-group competition (e.g. sexual selection for Machiavellian intelligence) under universal constraints (e.g. pelvic diameter). Since these selective forces are found everywhere regardless of local environment, social organization, and technology, human populations should be expected to be roughly equivalent in intelligence.

    “do you mean “believe” as in a matter of faith?”

    I mean only that I have concluded the evidence for racial parity in genetic potential for intelligence is overwhelming and the contrary evidence is weak and unconvincing.

    It’s time to retire Gould’s ‘contingent fact of history’ hypothesis.

    Gould and grand theories: Gould was a booster of the ‘humans as neotenic apes’ hypothesis promoted by Ashley Montague and many others. Gould suggested that our evolutionary heritage of global neoteny was responsible for our open-ended learning, playfulness, and curiosity. Anyone familiar with the recent literature knows that scientific analyses indicate that the generic neoteny model is invalid. One, humans are not globally heterochronic in any sense – it’s more complicated than that; two, to the extent that heterochrony plays a role in our evolution (including the brain), the concept of hypermorphosis rather than neoteny is more accurate. The neoteny hypothesis was based on superficial similarities.

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